Germany’s Comeback

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 08/10/06):

Germany’s richly deserved 60-year holiday from leadership abroad is ending sooner than many here would like. Since World War II, Germans have become comfortable with standing in the shadows of power while the Americans, the French and others shoulder the costly burden of claiming to run the world.

War-imposed modesty no longer shelters Angela Merkel’s coalition government from having to show leadership in defining Europe’s new relations with a suddenly assertive Russia, fixing an independent Kosovo’s place in the Balkans and perhaps even shaping a broad response by secular societies to the challenges posed by militant Islam.

This is an especially daunting agenda for Merkel’s ideologically dissonant coalition. The chancellor’s conservatives and their Social Democrat «partners» have been battling openly in recent months over domestic reforms. As a result, the chancellor’s once-high approval rating has dropped like a stone.

But with power vacuums developing on the country’s eastern and western borderlands and the United States bogged down in Iraq, Berlin understands that it is condemned to lead. A visitor finds the capital beset with angst — but also bubbling with ideas — about the approaching German moment in international affairs.

In January, Germany takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months while also serving as host for next year’s Group of Eight summit. Both jobs involve setting agendas for others, organizing joint action plans and putting out unexpected diplomatic brush fires when national interests collide.

Merkel will stand pretty much alone in doing this. A looming leadership change and urgent domestic problems in France render inoperative the French-German duopoly that often runs European affairs. Britain and Italy are disabled as potential leadership partners for similar reasons.

To the east, political turmoil in Poland and Ukraine makes the task of designing an E.U. «neighborhood policy» more difficult and more urgent. And Germany will be in the saddle as negotiations get underway on a 10-year strategic cooperation agreement between the European Union and Russia just as Russia is flexing its muscles toward Georgia, other ex-Soviet states and an energy-needy Europe.

Fortunately, Merkel continues to distance herself from President Vladimir Putin — or rather from the unhealthily supine relationship with Putin pursued by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, now employed by Russia’s national pipeline company to oversee a deal he blessed while in office.

Merkel returned fuming from a triangular summit last month with Putin and French President Jacques Chirac, suggesting privately that this would be the last such gathering of the three-power group, which originated in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Merkel’s mood was not helped by Chirac’s public announcement that the meeting would be held in the northeastern French town of Compiegne — the site of Germany’s surrender in World War I and of Hitler’s infamous victory jig in 1940 — before he informed Merkel.

In any event, Merkel and Putin are circling each other cautiously as the Russians seek a legally binding new «strategic partnership» with the European Union that would dilute Europe’s transatlantic commitments. Merkel instead would like to see a common European-American energy strategy take shape to reduce the political leverage of Russia and other oil and gas producers. That idea has not evoked enthusiasm in Washington yet, but it should.

Moscow also plays hardball with Berlin by demanding that the final status of the former Serbian province of Kosovo be determined through a negotiated settlement with the Serbs.

Official German thinking projects Kosovo moving next year from U.N. administration to declared independence with limited sovereignty. The new state would have no army, and U.N. membership and other diplomatic recognition would be phased in over a decade.

Too timid for the Kosovars and perhaps for the Bush administration, the ideas will nonetheless anger Russia and upset Serb allies in the European Union. The Kremlin is already warning Berlin that Kosovo independence of any kind will bring disaster. It will set a precedent for breakaway factions in Georgia, Moldova and other places where there are «frozen conflicts» to pursue self-determination, with Russian help.

Berlin’s new diplomatic activism complements the recent groundbreaking German military deployments abroad that have been the subject of previous columns, and the efforts by Wolfgang Schaeuble, Merkel’s highly able interior minister, to counter militant Islam’s challenges to European concepts of freedom of speech and equality of the sexes, the subject of a future column here.

For now it is time to welcome the Germans back from the frustrations and joys of living on history’s outskirts and to hope that this time their ideas are stronger than their angst.